There was a point, probably around 1996, when “Party of Five” and “Melrose Place” were the glimmer twins of prime time twentysomething trash TV. From dorm rooms to boardrooms and all the bedrooms in between, 18 to 35 year olds were yattering and worrying in equal amounts about the murky familial sweetness of the former and the sleazy chum of the brazen, backstabbing latter. Of course “Beverly Hills 90210” was still doddering along with veteran tenacity. But perhaps because we’d largely grown up with its cast, “Beverly Hills” seemed like a weird plastic Coppertone spin on our own lives, amp’d with bling, boob jobs, and Dylan McKay. There was escapism there, but it wasn’t satisfying like the protein shake of heartwarming melodrama and shit eating base desire that “Party” and “Melrose” proffered. Culture has accelerated in the time and seasons since, and everyone has less patience. The boardroom corporate fat cats won’t wait for their dorm room target audience to glom on to a show, and the scant few promising offerings (“Freaks and Geeks”; “Undeclared”) are canned in favor of low concept, high yield reality programming. Some of these have their charms. But with all this 21st century television hateration and holleration, what we really need is some melodrama in our lives. And to that end, Fox has done it again. Welcome to “The OC,” bitches.
“The OC” does share “Beverly Hills”‘ ringer-as-voice-of-the-audience construct. It’s half a season in and Ryan (Benjamin McKenzie) is enjoying his pool house digs as the adopted son of Sandy and Kirsten Cohen (Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan). But he’s still Chino to the rest of Newport Beach, and still spends most of his time in public glancing from beneath his bangs, fists clenched like a caged animal. This angle is as overplayed as Coldplay. Luckily it’s just a framework to hold the load of gratuitous hookups, awkward walk-ins, and sparkling, stinging dialogue that make the show worth something.
Its underlying messages about the collective flaws of humanity rich and poor are heartening. But when Kirsten’s foxy hippie sister shows up, and Ryan’s doe-eyed girlfriend Marissa (Mischa Barton) starts a sashay with a glowering goblin of a fellow therapy patient, and our man Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) draws on Ryan’s tough-ass Chino chi to make moves on his dream girl Summer (Rachel Bilson), only to get more than his snarky Death Cab for Cutie-listening, PS2-playing ass bargained for when impossibly cool and cute new girl Anna (Samaire Armstrong) wants some Seth in her life, too – that’s when we all sit up, take notice, and start talking about a TV show like we haven’t seen a real one – a real good one – since Sydney got killed on her wedding day.
In real life, the idea is to crosshatch honest sincerity with witty repartee, in order to be the best social beings we can be. Unfortunately, our internal writing teams take frequent breaks. In their absence, we fumble for the perfectly-worded phrase and flub would-be slick voicemails. Our disheveled bed heads just look greasy and sad. It’s the banter that matters, and when TV does it right, it makes us jealous, loyal viewers. “Sex and the City”? It’s unclear whether John Corbett or Ron Livingston’s Carrie’s Boyfriend characters were ever anything less than casually handsome, offhandedly cool, and chock full of precision statements augmented with a wink and a smirk. The entire cast of “Ed” speaks in a witty, erudite jargon that’s totally foreign and utterly enviable, and the Gatling gun speech of “Gilmore Girls” is like Mamet without the shivs and swears. “The OC”‘s writers share this back and forth fascination. They fill the margins of their show with cool curly cues of reference, but filter them through the fractured speak of real life.
The Cohen family – Sandy, Kirsten, Seth, and Ryan – rip on each other as much as they offer support. “I always knew you were a late bloomer, honey,” a drunk Kirsten tells Seth when both Summer and Anna converge on the Cohen’s Thanksgiving feast. For his part, Seth just wants someone to acknowledge his Christmakah holiday, even as he cuts on the very same James Deanisms of Ryan that got him in this pickle in the first place. Seth’s a geek in the archetype-driven writing of Hollywood. But “The OC” pegs his geekness to indie cool, and lets Brody play Seth as being self-aware. He’s not stuck eyeless and mouthless inside his geeky teleplay prison. Sure, he’s never spoken to Summer, though she’s his unrequieted love and they’ve gone to school together their whole lives. But when confronted with the beguiling brunette in his boudoir, Seth laughs it off and makes a crack about his toy horse. “There’s my bed, by the way,” he says in passing. It’s in this way that “The OC” positions its people between rich fantasy, character cliché, and moment-driven bits of reality. An entire universe of overacting exists in the forest of Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows. But all his Sandy Cohen wants to do is surf and kiss his wife. Seth’s response when he catches them making out? “No sex in the champagne room, Mom and Dad.” This is banter. This is smart. This is not “According to Jim.”
By now, “The OC” has moved from summer fling to friendly winter neighbor. However, it’s still in an embryonic stage that allows it the freedom to actually be good. Fox realizes it has a hit on its hands, something with the kind of intangible pop culture cache that can’t be bought and doesn’t play Simple-minded pranks at Sonic. But it’s this very realization that has the potential to kill “The OC.” The show returns to the airwaves tonight after a holiday layoff. Those arch richies in Rooney will guest star – Phantom Planet must’ve thought contributing the theme song was publicity enough. And the web of way out storylines that were hinted at with swinger parties, gay dads, and big business all have potential to flatten and grey out, reducing their current squirm-worthy melodrama to simple – boring – melodrama, the kind sock-rocking preteens eat up. In other words, “The OC” can still be reduced to “One Tree Hill,” if Fox or its creators get nervous. Let’s hope they don’t. America’s one percenters need programming, too – trashy, tough love stuff that’s great for bedroom gossip and email strings, and has nothing to do with Bratz dolls or “Average Joe 2.”
California, here we come.